Monterey, Calif.-based Pro*Act is trying to help its distributors source locally grown produce by developing modified food safety guidelines for small growers.

Pro*Act creates guidance for small, local growers

The company, which manages a network of foodservice distributors and also offers its own product line, released two guidance documents to its distributors in mid-March.

One is a comprehensive food safety requirements document modified for smaller growers, and the second a questionnaire for distributors to use with growers.

“We’ve worked on and off for the past year making sure everyone in the company is comfortable with what the documents contain,” said Michael Jantschke, director of food safety for Pro*Act.

Jantschke worked with a committee of Pro*Act member companies that already had local programs in place to get input about what was needed. Using Pro*Act’s existing food safety requirements as a starting point, modified the requirements into something a small grower could meet.

“We were trying to adapt the standard food safety regulations but without diluting them to a level where there are no standards anymore,” Jantschke said. “But if we used the standard food safety regulations, no small supplier would supply because there’s a lot of documentation and record keeping required, and they wouldn’t pass a third-party audit.”

The document provides guidance to distributors on issues like how to manage local suppliers, how to sign them on, and potential pitfalls, as well as the more extensive information on actual requirements when working with a local farmer.

The second document, the questionnaire, gives distributors and small suppliers easy talking points by laying out questions distributors should ask. It follows the requirements laid out in the guidance document.

“A lot of times it’s easier, especially for farmers, to answer questions instead of going through 35 pages of text,” Jantschke said. “So you just ask, ‘What do you do with your water? How long have you had this piece of land in agricultural production?’”

Although the documents don’t define a local grower, they were written with a grower who sells to local farmers markets, restaurants and schools in mind, Jantschke said.

“We do feel there is certainly a need to come up with a definition of what is a locally grown produce supplier,” Jantschke said. “A lot of growers do a lot of good things, employ a lot of good practices, but don’t have recognition of what they’re doing, don’t have the food safety manuals, don’t have the documentation. Those are the farms we find the most trouble getting certified.”

The types of modifications to the document just make the steps simpler, Jantschke said. For example, instead of requiring a recall manual, small growers would just be required to have a straightforward plan for handling recalls and would have to supply contact information for someone available at any hour.

“Usually, for a regular supplier we’d say that’s not enough because it’s not complex enough, but for local suppliers, there’s not a need to have an elaborate program in place. They just need to have all the elements in there so they can react fast,” Jantschke said.

Pro*Act makes it work by using food safety personnel from the distributor to monitor food safety practices at the small grower. Currently, the new documents provide guidance, but are not a companywide policy or recommendation.

“Distributors must have capability for someone hands on, on site that can work with the grower,” Jantschke said. “By doing this, you can ascertain just by being there whether the good practices are in place or not.”

While Pro*Act distributors may decide to work with small farms for their own local distribution, these small farms will not supply Pro*Act itself. At this point, the company does not plan on using these farms for Pro*Act procurement, Jantschke said.

Jantschke said he expects the documents to change over time, as local programs progress and as more practices become standard.

“I think we’re all in agreement that for the foreseeable future, the buy local movement is growing” Jantschke said. “But there really hasn’t been any effort to standardize the local thing for the industry, so at least for Pro*Act, we wanted to have something we can use internally.”

Jantschke said the company plans to work with any efforts to create an industry standard.